Thursday, February 4, 2010

Biltmore: The house that George built

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Loretta reports:

When Lady Dunmore first came to Williamsburg and was shown the Governor’s Palace, she must have said, “You’re putting me on”—in 18th C speak, that is.  Compared to the great houses of Britain, let alone its palaces, it must have seemed like, oh, the dairy building.  It was too small, certainly, to be a stable.  Yet it was quite grand for Colonial America.

It would take a while for rich Americans to start building houses dedicated to showing off their money, but then they did it with a vengeance.  Most of the Gilded Age mansions to me epitomize Wretched Excess—ostentatious and unappealing.  But I did fall in love with Biltmore.  Maybe because the man who built it, George Washington Vanderbilt II (that's Whistler's portrait of him above left), was a man of imagination.  And maybe because he put his palace on a vast piece of land—100,000 acres in the North Carolina mountains--as the aristocrats of England did their country houses.  And maybe because he and his wife did interesting and useful things with their money.

He was 28 years old when he “decided to build the largest private house in America, establish a model dairy farm, revive the forest, and establish a forestry school and an arboretum.”  The Pisgah Forest took up 80,000 of those acres.  “Although it had an extraordinary range of species of trees, the forest was in a deplorable state, ‘burned, slashed, and overgrazed.’”  He also created Biltmore Industries, “furniture workshops set up…to train local North Carolina craftsmen."

He built a private railway spur to carry the materials from the main railroad to the site.  He had the country’s premier talent working for him: landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, architect Richard Morris Hunt, and forester Gifford Pinchot.

The house has about 255 rooms.  “In London, he astonished a rug dealer by purchasing at
one time three hundred Oriental rugs for his new house.”  I could go on and on:  about the John Singer Sargent paintings and the system of heating and cooling the house and the beautiful elevator and the gardens and the views and the fascinating servants’ quarters and more--but a visit is worth many thousand words, and if you can’t visit, there are video tours available at the site, and numerous books.

The opinions expressed here are my own.  The facts, figures, and quotes come from a wonderful, sumptuously illustrated book, The Vanderbilts, by Jerry E. Patterson.  The black & white photograph is courtesy the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-71822.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Ah, Loretta, I have been dying to see Biltmore forever. A&E once did a series called America's Castles and I remember The Biltmore episode. It looked divine. If only RWA would have their conference in Ashville! I have seen one of the smaller Vanderbilt estates in Hyde Park which just a cottage really, but incredibly ostentatious compared to the Roosevelt's house at Hyde Park. Great contrast between old money and new money. Franklin Roosevelt's home looks decidedly middle class next to the Vanderbilt estate.

Vanessa Kelly said...

I've never been to the Biltmore, and I'm just dying to go, too. My parents spent Christmas there a few years ago - according to them, it was fantastic. I love that Vanderbilt wanted to restore the forest to its natural beauty, and support the work of local craftsmen. I actually have some furniture from a workshop in No. Carolina. It's beautiful stuff.

nightsmusic said...

Every year, I ask my DH if we could take a short vacation there. Every year he suggests Lake Huron. Since the lake is cheaper, guess where we go. *sigh*

One of these days, I'm just going to get in the car and go!

Margaret Porter said...

Biltmore is amazing. I've seen it a few times, and when decorated for Christmas it's particularly nice. Plus, there's winery!

The house and grounds are, of course, magnificent and regal. But the main revelation for me was when we entered the marvellous wood-panelled library with all those hand-tooled gilt and leather volumes. My husband said, "This is my favourite room in the whole house."

And though I was already fairly certain, at that moment I was absolutly positive I'd married the right man!

(The) Ladybug Lounge said...

I was able to visit Biltmore a few years ago. It's gorgeous !!

LorettaChase said...

Elizabeth, Vanessa, Theo: I went, feeling skeptical, because the Vanderbilt mansions in Newport seemed the height of Gilded Age vulgarity to me. But when you stick a castle in the middle of a vast expanse of land, in the mountains, it works. Then, too, the interiors simply felt warmer, though GWV went all out. same as the rest of his family. But I liked his taste better. Me, I'd be happy with just the library and a few of the rugs. I had the same reaction Margaret & her husband had. I went many years ago, and it was for work--a video script--and it was one of my best scriptwriting experiences ever. Not just the house but the people and the environment--and that beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway.

nightsmusic said...

For a small piece of useless trivia, did you know that the 1994 (I think that's the year) movie Richie Rich with the Caulkin kid was filmed almost entirely at Biltmore?

Lyn S said...

I want to go to Biltmore and may end up taking my Mom. I am only allowed to point out houses to my daughter (17yr) that are exploding. The front porch of my house looks out to the Shenandoah Mtn. Although we just had a ton of snowdays, it is worth it to live in the mountains. I understand why GWV picked the mountains to build his dream home.
From what I have read, Americans did not have the kind of wealth to match the European aristocracy until the Gilded Age. Mount Vernon was considered very large and may have been the largest American home for decades. Nice that GW is the namesake for GWV.That is one of the best parts of history, how it runs around and keeps linking. A mobius strip of people and their lives.

Janga said...

Ashville is a great vacation spot for those interested in history and literature. Biltmore House is the jewel, of course, and truly spectacular at Christmas, but the Basilica of St. Lawrence, designed by the architects who designed Biltmore House, is also a marvel. The home of poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg at nearby Flat Rock is paltry in comparison to Biltmore, a mere 260+ acres, and simple in style, but it is also worth a visit. I was fascinated on my first visit to see an outbuilding filled with nothing but magazines the poet had read.

And I promise I'm not employed by the Ashville Chamber of Commerce.

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